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Caiman lizards: beautiful and highly adapted predators

Hello everyone! My name is Logan and I am one of the newest care team members in the Herpetology Department!

I would like to talk about a species that has become very close to my heart over my few months here: the northern caiman lizard (Dracaena guianensis). Before, you could find our caiman lizard to the left of the diamondback terrapins. However, this individual was later moved to a behind-the-scenes space to better accommodate needs associated with his geriatric age.

While this individual is sadly no longer with us – given a recent decline in his health and behavior, and his poor prognosis based on age-related conditions, our teams made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize him – his months in my care gave me a true interest in his beautiful species, and so I’d like to share a few facts with you.

The northern caiman lizard is native to the northern portion of South America in countries such as Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. Because it is often swimming and climbing, it prefers forested areas near streams, marshes, and other bodies of water. They sleep and bask on low-lying tree branches, but a great deal of their daytime involves being in the water. 

A long, flat tail gives them incredible swimming abilities that they utilize for both escaping predators and hunting their own prey. The caiman lizard is carnivorous and mainly consumes freshwater clams, crayfish, and snails. But you might be wondering how they consume animals with such tough exteriors? Well, this lizard has a very mighty jaw capable of crushing these items with ease. When prey is caught, the caiman lizard will tilt its head back, position the food near the back of the mouth, and utilize its short, rounded molar teeth to smash the shell to get to the meat. Another adaptation related to hunting is its nictitating membrane, or third eyelid. This is a clear eyelid that protects the eyes underwater and acts a little like swimming goggles, helping with that snail-searching!

The caiman lizard is visually notable for having bony scales and protrusions running along the entire body. This characteristic is similar to caiman crocodilians, which is where they get their namesake despite not being closely related. The northern caiman lizard in particular is also very notable for their distinct coloration: a sage-olive green body with a red-orange head. Picture a mango. Very striking in both pictures and in person! Finally, it is worth mentioning that this species typically grows to be 2 to 5 feet in length, making them one of the larger lizards in South America in terms of length. The tail is doing a lot of heavy lifting there, however.

I hope that you learned a lot about this amazing species! And while they are out of sight for now, I hope they will still be on your mind!

Logan S.
Keeper I, Herpetology

Connect With Your Wild Side #onlyzooatl